Seeking to be free after 4 yrs in jail without bail, youths charged under a Bangalore terror case of 2012 changed their plea from innocent to ‘guilty’. Their families begged them not to do so, their lawyer said they could win. JOHNSON TA on why the fight got too much for the 13.
In the four years that Wahid Hussain, 31, has been in a grey cell in prison, waiting to be tried on charges of terrorism under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), his neighbourhood in Hubli has changed. The family home that once stood alone in a suburb of the dusty old city is today in a maze of blue, green, pink and yellow-hued new houses.
A guava plant that was a sapling when the MBA degree holder was led away by the police — on charges of association with a dozen other Hubli youths, who allegedly came under the influence of Saudi-based Islamic radicalisers with hazy links to Pakistan terror outfits — has grown to the height of the house.
After that day in August 2012, Wahid’s family, despite their conviction that the 31-year-old did no wrong, withdrew into the shell of their home. “The last four years have been like a banishment to the forest for us. Time has gone so slowly. In the next few months, I think, time will fly,” says Wahid’s mother.
However, Mehrunnisa’s anticipation of the return home of her younger son comes tinged with fear — of the tag of a convict.
In the first week of September, Mehrunnisa, 62, and the parents of some of the other 12 youths arrested along with Wahid were told that their sons wanted to meet them.
On the premises of the designated NIA (National Investigation Agency) special court for terrorism cases in Bengaluru, they were told that the 13 had decided to plead guilty. NIA officials call this “unprecedented”, saying they know of no other terror case where the accused have pleaded guilty at the start of the trial.
The admission of guilt was part of a deal by the 13 for an early end to their incarceration — they have already spent four years without bail — under the tough UAPA law. Special NIA court judge B Muralidhar Pai tried to explain to the youths the consequences of pleading guilty, including that they could never get a government job. The judge also gave them two days to reconsider their plea.
When the youths stuck to their stand, the court, on September 15, sentenced all 13 to five years. This makes them eligible for release next year.
“I begged them not to plead guilty. I said I would fall at their feet. I told them it is better to come out clean than as a convict. They said this was their best chance to return to a regular life,” says Mehrunnisa.
Wahid’s father Abdul Munaf, 67, a retired Indian Railways employee, has been rendered immobile by ailments. His elder brother Safaraz works 13 hours a day at a mobile store to supplement Munaf’s monthly pension.
The parent of one of the 12 others threatened to jump off the court building if his son stuck to his guilty plea.
Initially, after the parents met the youths, two of the 13 appeared to change their mind. But after their lawyer cautioned them that once the majority had pleaded guilty, the legal odds would be stacked heavily against them, they went with the other 11.
The families had hired Hashmath Pasha, one of the foremost criminal defence lawyers in Karnataka, to fight their case. They had sold properties, borrowed money and collected donations from the Muslim community to raise Pasha’s approximately Rs 50 lakh fees. He told them a majority of the youths would be cleared.
“We were told three or four of the youths would face punishment because the NIA had a case against them. It was a shock that they all wanted to plead guilty to all the charges to end their misery,” says a parent.
In the two years of the trial, which began in June 2014, only 14 of 246 witnesses, including original investigating officer DCP Jitendranath, were examined by the prosecution and defence. Jitendranath’s deposition itself dragged on for over a year.
“The public prosecutor had to travel from Kerala and could not come on all days of the week. Besides, there was a long delay in getting reports on electronic records relied on as evidence by the NIA. Mirror images of hard disks were not provided to us,” defence counsel Pasha says. The evidence included 123 documents and around 128 material objects.
“Ultimately, they would have been acquitted,” Pasha believes. “We had countered the few prosecution witnesses we examined very effectively. The problem was that a long journey lay ahead.”
In his verdict of September 15, the judge hoped that the prison terms would not be a hurdle for the youths who wanted to pursue further education. “… such right of the accused cannot be curtailed,” the court said.
Mehrunnisa is not convinced.
They were sure “Pasha would demolish the prosecution’s case”, she says. “We keep worrying now — will Wahid get a job when he returns, will he be targeted by people, what is his future?”
Shoaib Ahmed Mirza, 27, a Master’s degree student of computer applications, was accused of playing a central role in bringing together the Hubli youths in Bengaluru, to forge links with terrorists abroad. Arrested with Shoaib was his elder brother Aijaz Ahmed Mirza, 30, a junior scientist at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
In the years since, says father Abdul Rauf Mirza, 60, an Indian Railways employee who retired this year, “There has been trouble for everyone. My wife suffered a brain haemorrhage. I feel my own life ebbing away.”
In February 2013, when Aijaz was released along with a journalist and a daily-wage earner, without charges being framed, Mirza and other parents hoped their children would be similarly vindicated.
Shoaib’s decision to plead guilty left him “very sad”, Mirza says. “But it was his decision.”
During his incarceration, Aijaz’s contract with the DRDO expired and he did not get his job back.
Abdul Mutalib Katagi once repaired telephones for a living and worked as a salesman. He had taken the help of relatives to finance son Nayeem Siddique’s education at a medical college. No one in the family that hails from Davangere in central Karnataka has studied up to that level.
Dr Nayeem was picked up from a train on September 2, 2012, while on his way to New Delhi to enrol for an MD programme.
Mutalib was among the few parents to attend every court hearing over the last four years in the case. But on September 15, the day Nayeem was sentenced, he did not go.
He kept opposing Nayeem’s decision to plead guilty, Mutalib, 62, says. “But their lives were slipping away while they languished in prison. What else could they do when given the chance to leave prison early, even if with a guilty tag? These UAPA cases drag on forever.”
Calling the Act “unjust”, Mutalib adds that Muslims are its worst victims.
Rafeeq Ahmed Sholapur, 68, a retired assistant conservator of forests who had a career without blemish, refuses to talk about Dr Zafar Iqbal Sholapur, his youngest son. The NIA case against Zafar was seen as being stronger than some of the others.
The NIA chargesheet accused Zafar, 31, of travelling to Pakistan via Iran between December 2010 and January 2011. It also claimed that Zafar and an associate from Hubli, commerce graduate Abdul Hakeem Jamadar, also 31 and named in the chargesheet, met some Indian fugitives linked to the Lashkar-e-Toiba as well as ISI agents.
Following Zafar’s arrest, Bajrang Dal activists held a protest outside his house in Hubli, where Rafeeq lived with his family — two of them doctors and one an engineer. Soon after, the Sholapurs sold the large residence, located in the posh, mixed-community locality of Badaminagar, and moved to Hyderabad.
About a kilometre from Badaminagar, in a middle-class colony for Post and Telegraph Department employees in Vasanthnagar, a two-storey building lies abandoned. An old scooter stands rusting in the yard.
The neighbours say the Bahadurs who lived there had moved out to the narrow lanes of Old Hubli in search of anonymity.
The younger son of the family, Ubedullah Bahadur, 28, a dye and tool technician, was among those who pleaded guilty. Ubedullah had completed a four-year course at the Nettur Technical Training Foundation in Dharwad and worked in Dubai and Israel before coming to India. He was slated to travel to China for work when he was arrested on August 30, 2012. His father had been suffering from heart problems at the time.
His elder brother works as a technician in Bengaluru. Reached on the phone, he refused to talk, only saying, “We are in trouble.”
Tahera Khatun, 62, often sits outside her small home in Hyderabad’s Chandrayangutta, wishing the gates would open and grandson Obaid-ur-Rehman would walk in. A final year B. Com student at Anwar Uloom Degree College at Nampally in Hyderabad, Obaid, 26, was arrested on September 1, 2012, and taken to Bengaluru. He is the nephew of Maulana Naseeruddin, who was arrested by the Gujarat Police for the murder of high-profile BJP state leader Haren Pandya but later acquitted.
“I saw Obaid in jail four months ago. He always asks us to pray for him so that he can come home. It is not possible to go often and meet him,” says the grandmother.
Obaid’s 45-year-old mother Kausar Sultana is down with chikungunya. Tahera says Kausar keeps worrying about Obaid and her five other sons and daughter, who are all in school. Obaid’s father Mohammed Hamid, a mechanic, died in 2005. The family sold off his workshop and gave the money to an uncle of Obaid’s, who gives a monthly interest and also some additional money to the family.
Their small house in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal colony does not have many visitors, says Tahera. “His friends used to come earlier but now they too have forgotten him. Neighbours keep to themselves… People will stay away. We cannot help that.”
The family’s bigger worry is that Obaid may not return soon. “I am told that he may be taken away by another investigation agency to New Delhi,” Tahera says.
Advocate Ghulam Rabbani, who is Obaid’s uncle and lawyer, says the NIA has also named Obaid in the February 2013 Dilsukhnagar twin blasts in Hyderabad, alleging he was aware of the plot and also interacted with key members of the Indian Mujahideen. “If he is cleared in that case, then Obaid would be free,” Rabbani says.
Among the things Obaid’s friends remember about him is that he owned a motorcycle that he loved. Asked about it, Tahera looks around the small courtyard confused, thinks for a long time, and says, “Yeah, he had a motorcycle. Maybe it was confiscated by police.”
The events leading up to the 13 pleading guilty are not quite clear, though the judgment indicates their decision had the backing of the NIA. After the youths pleaded guilty, the agency did not push for tough sentencing despite the accusations they faced.
NIA prosecutor Arjun Ambalapatta says he got a green signal from the agency top brass on leniency for the 13. However, he contests that the guilty plea had little to do with the way the case was conducted. “One of the reasons for it was the evidence brought against the youths. They had spent a lot of money on their lawyer and the evidence created doubts. There was also a split among the accused with some blaming others for dragging them into the case,” Ambalapatta says. “Many of the accused are well-educated and did not want to spend more time in jail.”
In his verdict, judge Pai said, “The learned Public Prosecutor, NIA, submitted that the accused have voluntarily come forward to plead their guilt and thereby they have shown repentance. He has submitted that such a move… is a step towards reconnecting to the society.”
A senior advocate involved with the defence of the 13 youths in the early stages of the case says this appears to be part of a new strategy of the NIA. “One of the things the agency is pursuing under the present dispensation (at the Centre) is conviction in the cases they have investigated,” he says.
The 13 youths told the court they were under no coercion to plead guilty and that the move was voluntary. Despite “time given by the Court for reflection as well as separate and individual questioning, the accused have reiterated that they have voluntarily come forward to plead guilty”, the court said in its order.
The court added that the youths may have been sucked into terrorism “on account of misguidance and lack of maturity of mind”. “…based on materials available in the record, it can be held that the acts done by the accused persons are only the acts preparatory to the commission of terrorist and unlawful activities and are less serious in nature”.
Muslim NGOs and the Jamiatul Ulema, which rallied financial and moral support for the youths, are dismayed over how the case has turned out. “The Jamiatul Ulema collected money at mosques and other places saying it was to fight for the innocence of these youths. The donors are now asking whether anybody would contribute to such a cause in the future,” says Akmal Rizvi, an advocate with the Association for Protection of Civil Rights, which has been at the forefront of the campaign for justice for the youths since 2012.
The Federation of Muslim NGOs has demanded that the government ensure that trials in terrorism cases are expedited and that the UAPA is amended to ensure “bail is granted when proof is not convincing” — unlike now, where an accused has to prove he or she is innocent to get bail.
“It is a sad reflection on the way investigations are conducted in terror cases. Hundreds of witnesses are cited and a chargesheet running into several thousand pages is filed… The accused, even if innocent, have to spend several years in jail,” says Masood Abdul Khader, the convener of the federation.
The organisation has also demanded “independent review committees”, comprising high court judges, in all states to look at the evidence collected in terrorism cases before granting sanction for prosecution.
Abdul Jakeem Jamadar, 31, pleaded guilty to the charge of travelling to Pakistan in an effort to go to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban . He was arrested on August 29, 2012.
Father Abdul Sattar, who does odd jobs at the Hubli corporation, says he struggled to raise funds to pay the lawyer. “Those who could afford contributed about Rs 5 lakh each, as well as about Rs 1 lakh extra for those who could not pay. Around Rs 10 lakh was raised through collections at mosques,” he says.
“What can I say about their decision to plead guilty? We came to know only after they pleaded guilty. The NIA was probably talking to them,” says Sattar.
The families of Riyaz Ahmed Byahatti, 32, a computer applications graduate; Mohammed Sadiq Lashkar, 33, an electrician; Mehboob Bagalkot, 32, a construction site worker; and Syed Tanzeem Ahmed, 27, a student, could not raise money for the fees.
Mushtaq Ahmed Byahatti, 44, says no one from the family has visited Riyaz in two years. He was arrested on August 30, 2012. Mushtaq is the eldest of the 11 Byahatti siblings, Riyaz the youngest.
“Two years after my brother was arrested, I suffered a paralytic stroke and have been unable to move out since. Our father is old.”
Riyaz had a bachelor’s degree in computer applications, and the family had high hopes from him when, instead of joining the chilli trade like the rest of his kin, he moved to Bengaluru in search of a job in the IT industry.
Mehboob Bagalkot’s brother Ismail, 45, says after Mehboob’s arrest on August 30, 2012, he had to support the family on his earnings as a daily wager. “The women in the home have also been forced to work,” he adds, talking about his three sisters and Mehboob’s wife. Mehboob had been working at construction sites when he was arrested.
Ismail thinks he understands what made Mehboob plead guilty. “When you have not done anything, it becomes unbearable to be in prison.”
Mehrunnisa recalls she had pushed Wahid to take the Rs 3 lakh bank loan to pursue his MBA degree. Her husband Abdul Munaf had his reservations, as the family had already run up debts building their house. After Wahid was arrested, the bank gave them some time. But Munaf expects them to come knocking on their doors soon.
“I hope Wahid can find a job,” he says.
With input from Sreenivas Janyala, Hyderabad